“Pay it forward” was the lesson Anna Donovan’s fourth grade class was learning last Friday morning. The phrase was new to the children, but the concept wasn’t. They had been on the receiving end of some good deeds just a few minutes before, as they walked into their classroom to find backpacks full of new books and toys on their desks, products of Volunteer Fairfax’s fourth annual “A Celebration of Giving and Sharing.”
“This is a great group of kids,” Donovan said, “very appreciative.”
She turned the surprise gifts into a teaching tool immediately. The class began by discussing what it means to be a volunteer — the consensus settled on someone who cares, gives their time and helps other people. “They came up with the words themselves,” Donovan said. A student’s mother who volunteers in the classroom was mentioned. Then they talked about how the backpacks from Volunteer Fairfax had made them feel — very, very happy — and how they might pass the feeling onto others in the community, how they could pay it forward.
"I think it went really well," said Cori Bassett, communications manager for Volunteer Fairfax. "We're doing a lot of things different this year."
Dogwood Elementary on Glade Drive was one of four Fairfax County schools selected by Volunteer Fairfax this year. This year the program was extended to give backpacks to all the students in the school, from kindergarten through sixth grade. Previously, only classes through third grade were included.
"It was nice that some of the older grades had seen the younger kids get the backpacks [in other years]," Bassett said. "They were surprised this time that they got them too."
Another change this year was that Volunteer Fairfax acquired the backpacks and their contents on their own, separate from the Volunteer Houston group they have worked with in the past. The Houston program is called "A Visit from Saint Nicholas," and Volunteer Fairfax used that name until last year, when it was changed to "A Celebration of Giving and Sharing."
Many of the Dogwood students remembered receiving bags in years before; the school has been a recipient school all four years since Volunteer Fairfax began the program. Eric, a fifth-grader in Deborah Wyttenbach’s class, got a backpack in third grade, but said this year’s was better. Like most of his classmates, he was a fan of the small beach ball that came in the backpack. Susana, a third-grader in Michael Chierichella’s class, remembered receiving bags the last few years as well. She liked the coloring book in her bag.
The students were not the only ones who had experienced the Celebration of Giving and Sharing before — Alvin Gillem, who stopped by Marie Bauer’s first-grade class, said this was his third or fourth year volunteering with the program. He lives in Loudoun County and works with AT&T, and said one of his co-workers brings a group to help every year. And why do they keep coming back? “We really enjoy it,” he said.
Bassett said repeat volunteers are common in the program. "A lot of them, once they come, are like, 'I'm definitely coming next year,'" she said. Students from Madison High School helped distribute the backpacks throughout Dogwood last Thursday night, and Bassett said their teacher wanted to make sure they came back next year for both the Thursday night distribution and Friday morning discovery.
Donna Copson, a Reston resident who volunteers in Chierichella’s classroom, said she loved seeing how surprised the students were to get gifts with “no strings attached” from Volunteer Fairfax, a group made up of people who are strangers to most of the children. She felt certain that despite the extra fun the backpacks and the toys inside had created for the children, the “pay it forward” message was getting through.
“A lot of these kids are fascinated that somebody cares,” she said. “It does cause them to think about that.”